Gifted yet elusive comic walks a unique road

WASHINGTON, D.C. — IN A BUSINESS STEEPED IN larger-than-life characters, Steve Martin has always been a distinct anomaly. Comics are always born in Brooklyn and learn their craft on the borscht circuit, but Martin grew up in Garden Grove and worked Knotts Berry Farm. Comics work the celebrity roast circuit when they grow older, but Martin writes serious novels and essays for the New Yorker and collects art. When you meet comedians at parties, they display their edgy personalities and say funny things. Martin, however, is a distanced man with a singularly inexpressive face who, when you talk with him, always seems like he’d prefer to be somewhere else.

Given all this, Steve Martin must be both pleased and discomfited by the kudos being heaped on him Dec. 2 at the Kennedy Center Honors in the capital. Surely it took all the skills of George Stevens Jr., a gifted impresario, to effectively dramatize the career of such an undramatic man.

Seated beside Martin at the 30th anniversary Honors program will be fellow honorees Martin Scorsese, Diana Ross, Leon Fleisher and Brian Wilson. The evening is expected to raise some $5 million for the Kennedy Center, which has bravely persevered as a cultural landmark through the Dark Ages of the Bush years.

Indeed, the honorees this weekend will probably look more apprehensive than festive as they are shepherded through the ceremonial visits to the White House and State Dept.– a pre-show fixture of the Kennedy weekend that, in earlier years, were evenings of celebratory glitz.

The choice of Martin as an honoree was timed coincidentally with the publication of his new book, “Born Standing Up.” Like its author, the book is hard to define. It’s not quite a memoir and not quite funny, but rather a poignant recounting of a miserable childhood and the beginnings of a bizarre career as a standup.

Growing up in Orange County, working venues like Merlin’s Magic Shop, Martin carefully crafted his act. He plucked his banjo, needled his audience (“how many people are here tonight, raise ‘em up?”) and resisted the temptation to supply conventional punch lines. He was at once “wild and crazy,” and hopelessly square, a post-modern comic who would become the star of “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Certainly his debut on “Saturday Night Live” 30 years ago was his big break, but now, at 62, it’s hard to know quite what to make of him. Having just shot yet another “Pink Panther” sequel, Martin reveals an inclination to emulate Peter Sellers, who was an earlier brilliant clown with an indistinct persona. I knew Sellers, but I could never quite figure out who he really was. Indeed, Martin’s “Inspector Clouseau” has captured much of Sellers’ shtick, but not his innate madness.

And that, perhaps, is because Steve Martin, in his acting and his writing, is still the Orange County boy who must ultimately be in control. In his new book, he relates how meticulously he studied tapes of his standup performances, warily cutting out missteps. He wanted to craft “an act without jokes,” one that suggested Lewis Carroll as much as Jerry Lewis (he occasionally padded a show by reciting T.S. Eliot). Martin’s fiction, like “Shopgirl,” also reflects this insistence on control — a uniquely passionless novel about passion.

In my conversations with Martin, I was always impressed with how eager he was not to make an impression. But at the Kennedy Center this weekend, he’ll be seated in his tux, smiling and wincing at the barbs and kudos, and perhaps wondering, “whoever I am, I’m glad I somehow made it here.”

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